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We call it student government, but it’s not really government in the usual sense of the word. If I have a dispute with another student, I don’t go to ASG to decide who’s right. ASG doesn’t make laws that I have to follow. And it certainly can’t put me in jail. So what exactly does it do? What is its function, and how does it affect us as Northwestern students? These questions have many possible answers. Here I offer only four:
1) ASG is our country club management
Every student pays a fee of $150 for “student activities” adding up to a total of over a million dollars, and it’s ASG’s job to allocate these funds. The money is used to fund Dillo Day, A&O, and various other student groups. That is, things that most of us wouldn’t be able to afford as individuals, but that we can afford as a group. This is essentially the purpose of a country club: very few can afford to buy their own golf course, so a bunch of people get together and pool their money to have a golf course for all the members of the club, and assign a group of people to manage the funds. Except we are forced to be part of this club, and instead of a golf course we get Regina Spektor. Many consider this to be the primary function of ASG.
2) ASG is our parliament
A parliament is, at its core, a group of people that talk. ASG is a place where students can discuss matters that concern them, such as the lack of Wi-Fi in the Lakefill or how bad the food is in the dining halls. In a way, this is good in itself: talking can help us figure out what is wrong with our community and how to fix it. Or if you don’t really care about fixing it, at least talking about it can serve as a kind of therapy. Of course, I can always just go to any group of my own friends and talk to them about these same issues, but it is good to have a large and diverse central parliament to which anyone can take their concerns. Moreover, what ASG has to say carries more weight than what my friends have to say because the university recognizes ASG as our representative. Which takes us to . . .
3) ASG is our lobbying group
ASG represents the voice of the students to the university administration. But how well do they do this? After all, it isn’t particularly representative of the student body in the way it’s elected. For example, a student who lives in a dorm and is a member of two student groups may get to vote for as many as three different senators, whereas a student who lives off-campus and isn’t a member of any “important” student groups may be ineligible to vote for any senators. Even ignoring this, ASG doesn’t really have any power over the administration. Morty can listen to them if he wants to, but he doesn’t really have to. And even Morty doesn’t have much power. It’s the Board of Trustees that approved his selection and has the ultimate say in anything that happens at the university. Guess how often ASG gets to meet with them? Once a quarter. ASG sends some representatives, they give a presentation and discuss campus issues with the Board, and that’s it. While ASG does meet more frequently with individual committees within the Board of Trustees, the conclusion is that your average Washington lobbying group has much more power over the U.S. government than ASG does over the university. They can make phone calls and meet with congressmen whenever they want, offer them campaign money, and listen in on their meetings. So ASG may be our lobbying group, but it’s not a very good one.
4) ASG is our Model U.N.
A student who wants to become a politician can get experience working while they’re at Northwestern by becoming an ASG senator. In this way they can develop skills that might serve them later in their career: they can propose bills, debate them, vote on them, and they even get to play with real money! Plus, ASG bears many striking similarities with the United States Congress. It’s bureaucratic, ineffective, has apathetic constituents, and represents some of them more than others. In sum, it’s the perfect training grounds for real-life politics.
It may have other minor functions, but I believe these are the main ones. I should point out that this was not at all a normative analysis; you might actually think that it’s perfect the way it is, or that it only needs some minor reforms. I think that we as a student body ought to constantly question our institutions, especially ASG, since it’s the only one that claims to represent all of us.
You might ask, for example, “Why doesn’t ASG have power to make direct changes at the university, without having to go through administrative hoops?” Or, “Why do we even have a separate body to represent the students, a completely independent one for the faculty, and none for other university employees?” Or, “If the Board of Trustees is in charge of university policy, but we’re the ones who have to live and work here, why aren’t they forced to at least talk to us more often?”
It is our responsibility as students to ask these questions, and to have these conversations with the university administration. Otherwise when the administration does something we don’t like, like raising tuition by 4.3 percent, we’ll be limited to criticizing the outcomes, and forget about the processes that inevitably led to them.